Isn’t it odd when books speak to one another, across centuries and wildly differing genres? First it was Austen’s Persuasion presenting me with a portrait of Anne Elliot’s perfect loyalty rewarded. Then it was Valley of the Dolls repeating the same theme but in much darker vein, with women’s loyalty standing as a cross that had to be borne, as if it were more like a disease than a virtue. Now to finish the trilogy, relatively new author, Aifric Campbell, presents loyalty as an inability to let go, and devotes her beautifully written novel to prising her heroine’s fingers away from the ghost of loves past. As time moves forward, so the notion of a love that endures regardless of separation and damage becomes increasingly viewed as a bad idea. Is this the result of changing attitudes, or just an intriguing coincidence?
In any case, Campbell’s novel, The Loss Adjustor, is a very good novel, if you like quiet, tender, thoughtful fiction. It’s the story of lonely Caro, thirty-something singleton who has never recovered from a childhood trauma and the loss of her first love. We know it all had to do with the friends who lived either side of her: Estelle, temperamental but clinging, and Cormac, cool and infinitely desirable. From the start we are told that this intertwined threesome comes to a sticky end, but it will take us until the very end of the book to find out exactly why it was that Estelle died young, and Cormac moved away, leaving Caro behind to hold a lonely but determined vigil for the hopes and desires that went with them.
Caro’s life in the present is organized around her frozen grief. She works without irony as a loss adjustor, hired by an insurance company to put a figure on the reparation of loss in times of accident and tragedy. Her nosy but well-meaning boss, Nicola, is continually prying into her private life, trying to find out what makes her so reticent, but she gets nowhere. Caro’s mother, her sole surviving parent, is not about to make a difference to her life either. A natural recluse, she has no need of her daughter and her insulated independence gives Caro another excuse to close in on herself. But someone is about to haul Caro into the present, albeit unintentionally. Visiting Estelle’s grave every weekend, Caro strikes up a unlikely friendship with the elderly Tom who is there easing his guilt towards his lost wife. The antics of his anti-social (but ultimately lovable) dog, Jack, bring the two of them together, and it is through the gentle unfolding of this relationship and the curious tale Tom will tell about his own childhood, that Caro comes to find a new peace of mind.
The basic premise of the book sounds like a repetition of any number of other novels – childhood trauma, lost love, an oddball pairing that brings unexpected release – but what raises this book above similar attempts at the same theme is the quality of the writing. Campbell’s style is very beautiful, very elegiac, very carefully composed (I’d almost have liked to see her let go a bit herself, only it wouldn’t have been in keeping with Caro’s voice), and the character of someone wilting under a burden of guilt so overwhelming that its edges can’t be found is perfectly evoked. The strongest parts of the book are almost the quietest ones, Caro imagining she can perceive the ghosts in the church courtyard produces some brilliant scenes. When I first began reading and found out that lost love Cormac had gained international fame as a rock star, I was afraid that part of the narrative would jar. But in fact, it’s well handled, with his superstar status taking him not just away from Caro, but out of her orbit entirely. In fact, the only part of the story that doesn’t quite reach fruition is the part about Caro’s job as a loss adjustor, an idea I loved, but which never becomes the potent symbol or cause for redemption that it ought to be. But never mind – literary fiction is so very hard to do that it is almost always a little flawed. The end, where the mystery of her childhood is finally revealed was as satisfying as it ought to be, and the conclusion just right. My overriding impression was that Aifric Campbell is a very intriguing author who should one day produce a really stunning novel. In the meantime, this is a very good one to be going on with.